Monday, September 28, 2015

“Energy for All”: UN Includes Access to Energy in New Sustainable Development Goals

Credit: United Nations Sustainable Development Summit.
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On Friday, the UN adopted an ambitious set of Sustainable Development Goals. These goals replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in outlining a 15-year game plan for combating poverty worldwide. Unlike the MDGs, the new goals recognize a critical component to fighting poverty: access to energy.
The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal 7 aims to “[e]nsure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” To achieve this goal, the U.N. has proposed five targets to pursue. First is “ensur[ing] universal access” to energy, even if the energy is not sustainable. Others include globally increasing the proportion of renewable energy generated and increasing the rate of gains in energy efficiency. Finally, the targets encourage international cooperation in sharing and developing technology and in investing and upgrading infrastructure in developing countries.
Like all the new goals, Goal 7 is remarkably ambitious, some say possibly too much so. Unfortunately, it is unclear how the U.N. intends to implement and achieve this goal. The four key characteristics for energy (affordability, reliability, sustainability, and modernity) are not clearly defined. For example, a “modern” energy source should not include nuclear energy, according to the German Development Institute. However, according to The U.N. Chronicle, coal could be considered “modern” but not “sustainable.” The Chronicle reports that “modern” would not include traditional fuels such as wood or animal dung. It notes that about 40% of the world’s population (about 2.7 billion people) use these traditional fuels, which contribute to indoor air pollution.

If one follows the Chronicle’s understanding, ensuring access to coal could support progress towards the first target but not towards the ultimate goal. Thus, the first priority is to increase access to energy and second to ensure that energy is sustainable.

But that separation of priorities may very well be unnecessary. The best long-term investments for alleviating poverty around the world will be providing access to energy that does not have volatile fuel costs or high emissions. Ideally, areas lacking access to energy can “leapfrog” over unsustainable energy sources to renewable ones.

It remains to be seen how the world will respond to the UN’s new call to action. Here in the Pacific Northwest, at least, we already know there is a lot to do to move beyond our controversial dirty energy exports to exporting clean energy, technology, and other assistance like the UN is calling for.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Drought Dries Up California’s Hydropower but Not its Vision for a Renewable Energy Future

Credit: NREL and MWH Global
California legislators recently passed a bill to increase the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to require 50% renewables by 2030. That is, by the year 2030, at least half of all electricity consumed in the state must come from qualified sources like geothermal, solar, wind, and small hydroelectric. Raising an RPS can be a great way to encourage investment in renewable energy, and pursuing additional low-emissions sources may be particularly critical today as California suffers production losses from its hydroelectric facilities.

In 2014, California generated approximately 47% less conventional hydropower than its ten-year average, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. While hydropower is often recognized as a low-emissions resource, most states limit the extent to which it qualifies under an RPS. This makes sense for encouraging investments in new technology, since many hydroelectric facilities were already online and operational before RPSs were adopted. (It also makes sense given hydropower’s significant environmental shortcomings.)

Unfortunately, excluding hydropower from an RPS can also mean that when hydropower generation decreases, producers have little incentive to generate the replacement power from a renewable energy source. Indeed, California lost hydropower and primarily saw a corresponding rise in natural gas production, according to a report from the Pacific Institute. The report estimates that from 2012 to 2014 alone, the switch cost ratepayers $1.4 billion and raised California’s carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions by 8%. Those emissions included almost 14 million tons of carbon dioxide, plus other pollutants like nitrous oxides, volatile organic chemicals, and particulate matter. To be fair, California also saw more renewable facilities come online, but some say the new facilities were simply already in the pipeline.

Hopefully California’s new RPS will bring more renewable energy facilities online and help reduce the risks of an increasingly uncertain energy future. Droughts might reduce hydroelectric power (of late, something not unique to California), but that does not have to mean increased greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps more Western states should consider following Hawaii’s and California’s leads in raising their RPS goals before they, too, face declining hydropower.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Securing Solar Access in Portland: Voluntary Solar Easements Are Not Enough

By Andrea Lang, Energy Fellow

Last week, I attended Solar Now! University, a conference put on by Solar Oregon with lots of great local presenters on topics related to solar technology and policy. While I could write many pages (and I likely will, in future) on all the interesting solar technologies being developed, the panel that got me thinking the most was on the issue of planning and zoning for solar.

One risk of developing solar energy on your home or business is that future development could block your panels’ access to the sunlight. Currently, the only protection for solar access in Portland is through voluntary easements: Oregon law allows solar owners to enter into contracts with neighbors to secure a solar easement so that panels won’t be shaded. The problem with this kind of easement is that parties to these agreements do not have equal bargaining power. Solar owners need to ensure that the easement will run with the land, so that the solar access lasts into the future. Neighbors, on the other hand, do not want to restrict future development on their properties, and agreeing to an easement that runs with the land has the potential to affect property value. As a result, neighbors will often refuse to enter into a solar easement, or will demand exorbitant amounts of money in exchange.

There are a number of other policy options the City of Portland could consider besides solar easements. Ashland’s municipal code, for example, protects solar access from shading by buildings through required setbacks establishing a minimum distance between a proposed structure and a solar owner’s property boundary. To protect from shading by vegetation, Ashland allows solar owners to apply for a Solar Access Permit, which imposes duties on neighbors to trim vegetation to preserve solar access. In another example, the City of Boulder uses its zoning code to protect solar access. Boulder’s zoning code creates an invisible “solar fence” around properties, which protects properties from shading by adjacent properties. Like Ashland, Boulder also has a permit system in place to provide further protection beyond the “solar fence.” 

I realize that enacting laws restricting construction and tree growth is a tough proposition in a city like Portland that favors building up instead of out, and that prides itself on being literally green. Yet, earlier this summer, the City of Portland adopted an ambitious climate action plan which lays out strategies to achieve an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 and acknowledges the importance of solar development to cutting emissions. However, if Portland really wants to encourage solar development, it should consider adopting new policies that would reduce the risks associated with solar investments by making sure that solar access is secured for those who choose to invest in it. Given the expense of obtaining a solar easement, or the risk of proceeding without one, a voluntary easement system is simply not enough.